Include Customers in Company Volunteering

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Making customers part of corporate volunteer efforts benefits companies, communities, and individuals. Brewery Creature Comforts provides a model.

The brewery is in an old warehouse — a former car dealership — in downtown Athens, Georgia. Inside, customers gather at a bar and big wooden tables.

Every Wednesday, those tables host representatives of community organizations, from homeless shelters to a student enrichment program. They educate brewery patrons about their organizations’ work and involve interested customers in a volunteer activity: for example, making a blanket for the local homeless shelter or preparing lunch sacks for underprivileged children.

Brewery Creature Comforts has made customer involvement — these “Community Wednesdays” — a core part of its corporate social responsibility efforts. In engaging customers in this way, it’s a trailblazer.

Research has long shown that employee volunteering is effective, and such programs are common. Employee volunteering improves employee motivation, performance, retention and recruitment, report researchers.

Now, a case study of Creature Comforts’ initiative shows that customer volunteering has powerful benefits too, for the company, the participating customers, and the community. That’s the verdict from a recent study by professor Jessica Rodell and colleagues Tyler Sabey and Kristie Rogers.

While the impact is impressive, Creature Comforts staff emphasize that Community Wednesdays are just one expression of the brewery’s passion for supporting Athens, Georgia and its surrounding area. That passion drives brewery actions from strategic philanthropy to producing hand sanitizer during the COVID pandemic, said Matt Stevens, vice president of Strategic Impact for Creature Comforts. He oversees the brewery’s overall corporate social responsibility program, called “Get Comfortable.”

Clear Benefits from Customer Volunteering

Rodell and colleagues studied Creature Comforts’ customer volunteering in 2017. They attended Community Wednesdays over five months and interviewed and surveyed participants during that initial time and two years later.

The researchers found rewards from customer volunteering for:

  • Company — Customers who volunteered on Community Wednesdays saw Creature Comforts more positively. Their view of the company’s reputation improved and they became more loyal. One customer commented: “I think I would’ve grouped Creature Comforts into any other brewery category before the event. And [now] I think of it as more distinct…. I would say it’s my favorite brewery.” These customers described planning to visit the brewery more often and engage with it on social media. The two-year follow-up survey found that customers who felt engaged in the volunteer activity had actually increased their patronage of Creature Comforts, and had even influenced their friends to do the same.[1]

  • Customers — Most customers interviewed on Community Wednesdays saw the volunteering as an enriching experience. They felt positive emotions, connection to the brewery, and a general sense that volunteering was a “win-win.” One commented, “I was kind of pleased with myself after we left…. Like, hey, we did something good today.”

  • Community — Customers who participated in the hands-on volunteer activity developed lasting commitment to the issue: e.g. homelessness or food security. Even two years later, these customers remembered “not just the particular organization they are helping, but the greater need that the community has that they are trying to address,” Rodell said. Each Community Wednesday is also a fundraising opportunity, with 100 per cent of the evening’s profits going toward community organizations.

3 Ways to Optimize Customer Volunteering (and 1 Caveat)

What makes Creature Comforts’ customer volunteer initiative so effective?

Rodell and Stevens offered these insights:

  1. Activities are meaningful and concrete.

    Volunteering should be mission-oriented, not just a social activity. At Creature Comforts, Rodell reported, “the people that did the activity for social reasons didn’t remember anything — they didn’t connect with it in the same way.” Companies often try to make volunteering fun and social, said Rodell, but “without the meaning and the significance being portrayed, we don’t get the lasting impact of it.”

    Hands-on engagement — the volunteer activity — is particularly powerful. Researchers found that when customers simply donated money to the agency featured on a Community Wednesday, the evening had less impact on them. Those individuals “forgot pretty quickly what they were doing, why it mattered, who they helped,” said Rodell.

    Creature Comforts wants Community Wednesdays to help customers engage with the community long-term, said Stevens. “It introduces a customer who just happened to visit our taproom to a facet of our city they may not often think about. In the best-case scenario, they eventually do serve with that agency or another.”

  2. The program is authentic.

    Customers respond positively when a company initiative seems sincere, Rodell said. At Creature Comforts, employee involvement in the volunteering helps communicate this sincerity, Rodell found. “If customers didn’t interact with the employees to hear their enthusiasm, they might’ve had a skeptical response,” said Rodell. “But they saw how these hourly workers, who didn’t have to invest their time in this, are pumped and thrilled about it.”

    Employee enthusiasm stems from the program’s focus on local needs, said Stevens, who has managed Creature Comforts’ corporate social responsibility programs since 2017. Athens, Georgia, where Creature Comforts is located, is a place that people are passionate about. “Everyone at Creature Comforts loves Athens, Georgia,” said Stevens. “So if we’re promoting an opportunity to address one of Athens’ greatest needs, our staff are in.”

    The program also reflects the brewery’s core value of being a good citizen. “We regularly assess how we are uniquely positioned to serve others,” said Stevens. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Creature Comforts shifted to producing hand sanitizer. They had isopropyl alcohol, microbiologists on staff, and many empty bottles. “When COVID-19 hit, we were trying to keep everyone employed and meaningfully busy,” recalled Stevens. Now, they sell the sanitizer in their drive-through market and donate one bottle to charity for every two sold. In 2020, the brewery is working to become a certified B Corporation.

  3. Customer volunteering ties to strategic philanthropy.

    When Creature Comforts launched its Community Wednesdays in 2015, they immediately took off. “It grew wonderfully out of control,” recalled Stevens, with fundraising tallies increasing from $1800 to $70,000 in one year. In 2017, the brewery’s founders hired Stevens, who has a Master’s in non-profit management. Since then, the overall CSR program — called “Get Comfortable” — developed more structure. Changes included:

  • Assembling an advisory council. The advisory council includes representatives of local government, non-profits, and academia: for example, the executive director of the local community foundation, the Athens city manager, and data analysts at the University of Georgia. “We want the people who have dedicated their careers to social innovation to be at the table,” explained Stevens.

  • Emphasizing data. Stevens and the advisory council use data to understand needs, prioritize grantees, and evaluate program impacts. For example: Creature Comforts gives around 4 per cent of total revenue to community impact initiatives, and regular assessments show how grantees use funds.

  • Enlisting other businesses. “We started systematically opening the program up and pursuing other great generous businesses,” Stevens explained. In 2020, more than 25 Athens companies donate through the effort.

A caveat: May not be suited to all businesses.

Customer volunteer programs may not be suited to every enterprise. Rodell points to a few characteristics likely valuable for this approach: a business-to-consumer model, a physical presence, and a local image and connection.

Making all “Creatures” Comfortable

“I moved away from Athens four times,” Stevens recalled. “I kept coming back.” The brewery founders share that “very sincere love of this community,” he said. Community Wednesdays, Get Comfortable, and other company initiatives allow the brewery, its employees, and its customers to give back to a place they’re proud to call home.

More about CSR at Creature Comforts.

Creature Comforts CSR program overview: http://getcurious.com/get-comfortable/method-athens/

Matt Stevens describes Community Wednesdays (2 minutes):

Research on Community Wednesdays: Rodell, J., Sabey, T.B., & Rogers, K.M. 2019. “Tapping” into good will: Enhancing corporate reputation through customer volunteering. Academy of Management Journal.

Additional Resources

Matt Stevens recommends:

My Little Hundred Million. Podcast: Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. Stevens says: “It’s a compelling case for rethinking how to distribute your philanthropic resources.”

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. “If you’re not asking the right questions, consulting data, and inviting local leadership to the table, your philanthropic efforts may be ineffectual or even harmful.”

This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are. “I call this Citizenship for Dummies. There is a psychological concept described as place attachment, an emotional bond between a person and a place. The more a person loves a community, typically the more civically engaged they become. This book describes 10 things anyone can do to become a better citizen.”

Interview with Blake Mycoskie (founder of Toms Shoes). Podcast: Building a StoryBrand. “It’s about when, how, and why brands might consider taking a social stance and what the consequences are.”

[1] How much of a difference did participating in Community Wednesdays make? The researchers report that customers’ engagement in the volunteer activity significantly impacts both their patronage and purchasing at Creature Comforts two years later, as well as that of their friends. Specifically, the researchers found that customer volunteering explains 12.6 per cent of the variance in customers’ patronage, 2.5 per cent of the variance in customers’ product purchases, 11.7 per cent of the variance in company patronage by customers’ friends, and 14.4 per cent of the variance in friends’ product purchases.

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  • Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. Maya develops and oversees NBS’s knowledge products, and is obsessed with communicating complex things in clear terms (when possible).

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Responses

  1. I absolutely love this story and the visionary work of Creature Comforts! Companies of all sizes are compelled by public expectation to give back. Research shows a good percentage of us want to be engaged in that company giving back…and in return we will give back loyalty to that company. This article is an excellent illustration of the how and why. Elizabeth Dove, Corporate Citizenship @ Volunteer Canada

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